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Thailand: An Ancient-Modern Fitness Marriage

Thai take to fitness.

Many people know where to go to find Thai food, yet are unsure where to find Thailand. The country is bordered to the north and west by Burma; to the north and east by Laos; and to the southeast by Cambodia. The southern, skinny “tail” is between the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand, with Malaysia at the very southern tip.

While Thailand’s long and cultured history is well-documented, it is also a modern country, with fitness professionals and enthusiasts who are eager to learn and engage with the global community. “We are very similar to elsewhere, but a few years behind,” offers Suzanne Hosley, founder and managing director of Fitness Innovations Thailand (FIT), in Bangkok. “Most things do work, but on a more modest scale than in the West.” As an example, Hosley cites the low penetration (1%–2% of the population) of fitness club memberships and the preference for fitness choices that incur lower costs.

Along with the long-standing popularity of martial arts, Muay Thai and prechoreographed programs, there is also growing interest in freestyle dance among those who enjoy group fitness. Personal training studios are multiplying as trainers acquire more “knowledge, skills and confidence in their ability.” The first Asia Fitness Convention was held in 2009, and since then Hosley has noted a marked increase in clients’ interest and participation in TRX®, kettlebells, sports conditioning, boot camps and small-group personal training.

One unfortunate trend that has come to Thailand is the rising levels of inactivity and obesity. “This is a growing trend here in the large cities, although not in rural areas, where there are a lot of farming, fishing and other very active jobs. In the cities, childhood obesity, type 2 diabetes and other ‘Western’ problems are growing rapidly,” says Hosley. “The Ministry of Public Health is well aware of this and is trying to get people up and active, but the advent of fast food, computer technology and related lifestyle changes are taking their toll here, too.”

Hosley mentions that the Asia Fitness Conventions held in Thailand in recent years have helped to counteract this trend. “We hope to get more professionals bringing in new trends and knowledge to our clients and clubs. Smaller clubs are growing in number, and more people are taking to the streets—running, doing triathlons and other outdoor sports. Also, new [fitness] chains are starting, and existing chains are growing and expanding.”

Interestingly, Thailand’s cultural view of life affects how people view fitness. “Buddhism has a good foundation of clean, healthy, mindful living, but a key message is that the body is just a vessel and does not matter. Therefore, the spirituality of yoga is very popular,” says Hosley.

Almost in direct contrast to this view of the body is the observation by Hosley that “physical beauty is admired and aspired to. This takes many forms, but mostly the lean, cover-model physique is most sought-after by both men and women.”

The way the sexes view exercise differs, says Hosley. “Women prefer yoga, Pilates and group exercise; they do not like strength training and are afraid of ‘building muscle’ and getting bulky. Men prefer strength training and sports, although everyone is worried about exercising outside, as they don’t like to spend time in the sun, which is very strong here!”

With over 20 years’ experience in education and training in Asia, Hosley is enthusiastic and optimistic about the direction of fitness and wellness in Thailand, especially as she sees how many instructors and trainers are seeking to upgrade their qualifications and acquire international certifications.

Alexandra Williams, MA

Alexandra Williams has taught fitness for 17 years and has a master’s degree in agency counseling, with an emphasis on marriage and family. Her professional training has forced her to scrutinize her own value system, especially as she attempts to raise ethical children. The author wishes to thank Jack Raglin and Jim Gavin for their helpful insights and suggestions.

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